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Visually spectacular ‘First Man’ might be among best movies this year

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” (Daniel McFadden, Universal Pictures)

“FIRST MAN” — 4 stars — Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Ciaran Hinds; PG-13 (some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language); in general release

Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” is a powerful and inspirational film — one of the best this year — and a clear reminder of why it’s still worth heading to a theater to see a movie on the big screen.

“First Man” tells the true story of the Apollo 11 mission that landed astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon. As the film opens in 1961, Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is in the middle of a thrilling high altitude test flight that takes his X-15 jet over 140,000 feet, beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Armstrong is capable, cool and, most importantly for the job to come, a problem solver.

The pilot’s challenges are not exclusively flight-related. Back on the ground, his young daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford) is suffering from a brain tumor. When she eventually passes, Armstrong is forced into a reckoning that leads him to join NASA’s Gemini program. Here he meets other aspiring astronauts like Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), all bent on fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s famous directive to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

When asked why he thinks space exploration is a worthwhile goal, his reply is simple: perspective. We keep this in mind while Chazelle unfolds the events of the coming years, as NASA works through tests and failures and, most tragically, the deaths of several astronauts. When three Gemini astronauts perish in a launch pad fire, public pressure only gets worse as politicians and citizens suggest U.S. money and manpower could be better used elsewhere.

Chazelle’s pacing is very deliberate, especially early on — some may find it a bit slow — but as the plot moves forward, we get better acquainted with Armstrong, played by Gosling as a stoic, practical, soft-spoken man of few words. When fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) mentions the idea of bringing some of his wife’s jewelry to the moon, Armstrong suggests he’d rather bring more fuel.

This practicality is a strain on Armstrong’s own marriage. At one point, Armstrong’s wife Janet (Claire Foy) insists he sit down and address the realities of his mission with his children, and he handles the moment like it’s just another press conference. Meanwhile, Janet embodies the classic image of the frustrated but stalwart wife who supports her husband while dreading the strong possibility that he won’t return home at the end of the day.

It’s unlikely anyone will see “First Man” without being familiar with the story, but in spite of that familiarity, Chazelle has produced a film ripe with tension and suspense. “First Man” has a way of putting the audience in the cockpit with Armstrong, bringing to life the terrifying creaking reality of these pioneering flights in a way that is both claustrophobic and visually spectacular, and earns Chazelle’s film a place alongside other classic space-race films like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.”

As the story advances into the Apollo program and finally to Armstrong’s triumphant Apollo 11 mission in 1969, we’re made to marvel at an accomplishment that feels even more impressive as we realize the limitations of technology that managed such a feat.

As claustrophobic as it may be in the cockpit, by the time we see Apollo 11 take off, “First Man” delivers spectacular visuals that get even better once we make it to the dramatic finale on the moon. Chazelle’s effort is moving no matter where you see it, but “First Man” should definitely be on your short list of films to see in a theater.

The film marks another triumph for Chazelle, who demonstrates further versatility as a director after crafting the jazz drumming drama of “Whiplash” and the surreal musical whimsy of “La La Land.” “First Man” has no musical numbers, but it is a musical film that captures the beauty and rhythm of its subject. When awards season comes around, you can bet this one will get attention, and rightfully so.

“First Man” is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language; running time: 141 minutes.

Joshua Terry is an award-winning writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. He has written weekly film reviews for the Deseret News since 2013.

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